We are just three weeks away from the Nov. 3 general election. Many Oklahomans have Congressional, legislative and local seats to decide on their ballot. Every Oklahoman will have the chance to voice their opinion in the U.S. Senate race, as well as two state questions that could be added to the Oklahoma constitution.
One of these state questions, State Question 805, is a ballot initiative filed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a group headed by former House Speaker Kris Steele.
SQ805 would prohibit district attorneys from using prior felony convictions to enhance sentences for nonviolent crimes in Oklahoma. If passed, the measure would allow people serving prison time for nonviolent crimes who were sentenced with a sentence enhancement to petition a court to have their sentences shortened.
The language of the state question defines violent felonies as offenses listed in Section 571 of Title 57 of the Oklahoma Statutes on Jan. 1, 2020. The Legislature sets a range of punishments for every state crime. If a person has no felony convictions or completed a felony sentence more than 10 years ago, they must be sentenced within the range set by the Legislature.
Currently, Oklahoma’s sentence enhancement law allows district attorneys prosecuting individuals with at least one prior felony conviction to enhance their sentence beyond what a first-time offender would receive. An analysis from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs found that district attorneys use sentence enhancements in 80% of cases where it is available.
Supporters of SQ805 argue that the change would prevent disproportionate punishments for nonviolent people who had previous nonviolent convictions. They also say the change would reduce the state’s high imprisonment rate, of which Oklahoma ranks among the highest in the country and the world. It would also save taxpayer dollars in the process and those funds could be allocated by the Legislature for other uses, such as treatment and rehabilitation programs.
Proponents of SQ805 also say the change would still allow judges and juries to take previous crimes into account when sentencing and that the Legislature will still have the power to add or remove crimes from the violent crime list.
While the state question is not automatically retroactive, those who are eligible can appeal to have their sentence shortened. This is approximately 8% of Oklahoma’s overall prison population, or just over 2,000 people. Of those people, about 1,700 are incarcerated for drug or property offenses, and another 300 are in for all other crimes, including DUIs and all domestic abuse or other legally nonviolent person offenses.
Detractors of SQ805 say the change will allow repeat offenders to escape the full penalty of the law and crime rates would rise. Prosecutors would be forced to treat repeat drunk drivers and domestic abusers as nonviolent criminals. They believe the language of the ballot initiative would prevent the Legislature from modifying the list of violent crimes beyond what was considered violent on Jan. 1, 2020.
Most domestic abuse charges are not considered violent crimes in the eyes of the law. The Legislature added several domestic abuse charges to the violent crimes list, including domestic violence by strangulation, which will become a violent crime when the bill goes into effect on Nov. 1. Since domestic violence by strangulation was considered nonviolent as of Jan. 1, 2020, it could still be considered nonviolent for the purposes of sentence enhancements under SQ805.
There is a statute that would allow prosecutors to charge Domestic Abuse with Prior Pattern of Physical Abuse, which carries up to a decade in prison. This charge would not be impacted by the state question, but the charge requires testimony from the victim or a witness, which is difficult to obtain due to fear.
Some detractors of SQ805 also dislike how the state question does not direct any money saved to rehabilitation or treatment programs; instead, the remaining funds would be up to the Legislature to apportion.
If Oklahomans pass SQ805 on Nov. 3, it will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. It would apply to any criminal defendant who had not yet been sentenced.
As your state representative, I thought it would be helpful to share information regarding State Question 805 as you consider how to vote on Nov. 3. However you vote, I encourage you to do your research ahead of time to make your decision! To preview your ballot, visit https://okvoterportal.okelections.us/.
As always, if you have any questions or issues I can assist with, please reach out to my office at (405) 557-7375 or email@example.com.
Rep. Randy Randleman represents District 15 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, which includes portions of Haskell, LeFlore, McIntosh, Muskogee, Pittsburg and Sequoyah Counties.